As Paul Guenther begins his first year as a defensive coordinator, he’s found himself in a great position. He’s inherited an elite defense and maybe the best in the AFC. This unit was stout against both the run and pass in 2013 while also responding well when the ball was turned over; opposing teams only scored 55 points off 30 turnovers last year (8th most in the NFL) and 32 of these points came when the opposition took over the ball inside the Bengals 40. These accomplishes led the defense towards surrendering only 19.1 points/game; good for fifth in the league. Needless to say, it was a stellar year and the future looks bright for this unit. But this doesn’t mean the defense won’t see changes in 2014. Guenther has already made it known that he’s intends to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks this year by blitzing more often. Any change can’t help but bring to mind the old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” when the defense has been so impressive. But change doesn’t necessarily mean an entirely different approach either. So, is blitzing more really the best approach?
One way to look at this is to assume that changing an already effective unit may weaken it more than provide it improvement. Even with the offense struggling with ball control, the Bengals defense still ranked 3rd in the NFL and 1st in the AFC last year. They presented consistent pressure against opposing quarterbacks and this will only improve as Geno Atkins returns from injury. Due to his pass rushing prowess, his return will almost certainly result in more sacks while also increasing the effectiveness of the defensive ends. This is evidenced by Michael Johnson’s 2012 versus 2013 where he produced 11.5 versus 3.5 sacks respectively; Atkins ability to collapse the middle of the pocket flushes QBs out of the pocket and into potentially vulnerable positions. Despite Atkins missing presence, the Bengals still ranked as the 6th best team in “pass rushing productivity” last year, according to ProFootball Focus. In contrast to being mildly unprepared for the loss of Atkins, the team prepared well for the departure of Michael Johnson by securing players such as Wallace Gilberry, Margus Hunt, and Will Clark. Now that Hunt has a year of experience, both he and Gilberry should see an increase in snaps and should be able to negate the loss of Johnson while Clark battles to find his footing and niche on this team.
Blitzing is often used as a method of creating more turnovers and may be the intention of Guenther and the Bengals. This would create more opportunities for the offense. But the Bengals created the third most turnovers in the league last year, so improving upon this number, 31, will be difficult; I understand that league rankings don’t mean that more can’t be accomplished, rather I want to point out that the Bengals weren’t at a disadvantage here. Blitzing may also be counterintuitive as the AFC North looks to be returning to its run-centric ways; all three division opponents added running backs in the past two years.
Finally, and most importantly, last year’s defense could have been vastly improved with a better performance from the offense. Obviously all units should attempt to get better, but the offense needs to improve by not putting the defense on the field so much and in such compromising positions. It will allow the unit to be less fatigued and enable it to decrease the points it allows. This may be the most significant factor towards the defense’s improvement.
On the flip side, blitzing may be a brilliant idea. In recent years the team has relied often on a rush from the front four alone and they’ve performed incredibly. This has allowed more defenders to play in coverage and limit the opponents from completing passes or gaining many yards after catches. But yet again this year, the team added more quality pieces to its secondary in the forms of Darqueze Dennard, Victor Hampton, and Isaiah Lewis. They may even get unexpected production from Lavelle Westbrooks and Onterio McCalebb while Chris Lewis-Harris has continued to make plays. The team will also get back three coverage linebackers who suffered injuries last year in Emmanuel Lamur, Sean Porter, and Taylor Mays. With so much added coverage ability to the defense, their potential to gain favorable matchups should be easier. This will give the Bengals the opportunity to cover receivers 1:1 and allow other players to be the blitzing component to Guenther’s strategy. Several of the team’s linebackers possess the talent to get to the quarterback and disrupt plays; linebackers such as Vontaze Burfict, Jayson DiManche, Sean Porter, and possibly even Vincent Rey who had four sacks last year. The Bengals performed extremely well against the pass when presenting a rush, evidenced by Cole Harvey’s Factoid. This provides substantial evidence in support of an increased blitzing presence.
Guenther’s alterations may effect the opposition’s ability to prepare for the Bengals. There’s no question that Zimmer’s approach will always produce an elite defense, but by altering the defense it will present the opposition with situations that they haven’t prepared for. Opposing teams have plenty of tape on this defense by now, but they are left only with assumptions when preparing for the blitzes Guenther may have in store for them. Nothing can invigorate a defense like increased opportunities to get to the quarterback, which can be interpreted in Dontay Moch’s comments regarding how it feels to get to the quarterback.
“It’s the same feeling that you get when you finish a Thanksgiving meal.”
It’s for these reasons that Guenther’s approach will add a fresh dynamic to the defense that it’s lacked in years past and motivate them to unequivocally be the best the NFL has to offer; it’s certainly within their grasp.
The Bengals have steadily improved their roster over the past few years. Several of their players have matured and developed into real impact players due to the consistency within the organization. Rather than change an already high functioning defense, some tweaks to the offense’s game planning should be enough to reward this team handsomely. But the team may benefit from a new dynamic on defense as this could be the key towards getting the Bengals over its playoff woes. 2014 should provide the answer.